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  Senate Passes Health Care for Poor Children

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 1998; Page C04

The Maryland Senate yesterday approved Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to extend health care coverage to more poor children in the state, a sign of the popularity of the idea and of the governor's broader agenda for this election year's legislative session.

The new plan would pay for doctor visits, medicine and other medical needs for low-income pregnant women and for 47,000 youngsters up to age 18 in families not covered now by the state's Medicaid program. The plan would cost the state roughly $29 million, with an additional $47 million provided by the federal government.

Although changes are expected when the House of Delegates considers the plan in the coming two weeks, legislative leaders expect that a finished bill will be available for the governor's signature before mid-March. Only eight days into the session, the Senate unanimously endorsed the governor's plan yesterday, without making changes.

"We wanted to send a signal . . . that this is a priority of ours and of the governor's," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery). "We want to enact the governor's agenda as quickly as possible."

Flush with money from the high-performing economy, Glendening (D) has outlined a series of new programs as he enters what even his admirers anticipate will be a difficult campaign for reelection. The programs include increased spending on school construction, on higher education and for the developmentally disabled.

Glendening's legislative agenda has been generally well-received by Democratic lawmakers, though Republicans and some Democrats have expressed serious concerns about its costs and the failure to include new tax relief. Last year, the General Assembly approved a 10 percent income tax cut, to be phased in over five years.

Only the governor's new plan to place restrictions on farmers' use of fertilizers is seen as controversial. The proposal, unveiled during Glendening's State of the State address Wednesday, is in response to last summer's outbreak of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida on several waterways leading into the Chesapeake Bay. It is likely to pit urban and suburban lawmakers against their rural colleagues.

Glendening "has put together an agenda that is very sexy in an election year," said Del. D. Bruce Poole (D-Washington). "He wants to put some points on the board quickly. These programs are likely to do that."

The health care bill passed yesterday is designed to take advantage of federal matching dollars, which will allow the state to spend $76 million this year. The money will help people who make too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program.

Glendening has said it is morally wrong for a state as wealthy as Maryland to allow poor children not to receive adequate health care. And he said it is wiser for the state to pay for preventive care for children than to be saddled with the costs of more expensive treatments should the children become ill.

The plan is an expanded version of a Glendening proposal that targeted poor youngsters up to age 3; it failed last year after the House and Senate could not agree on modifications. The Senate has generally been more supportive of Glendening's approach.

In the House, some leaders remain concerned that Glendening's latest proposal does not ask enough of recipients.

Many delegates want the bill to include some payment -- likely to be a premium or co-payment -- from parents whose children benefit. They say they want to instill a sense of responsibility with parents, many of whom may be in transition from welfare to work.

"People still want to be tight with a buck and they want personal responsibility. Free lunches don't sell," Poole said.

Children's advocates have stressed that such requirements may discourage participation. And they said that research has shown that it may actually cost the state more in the long run to administer the collection of premiums than if the program simply paid all health care costs.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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